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Time: Cyberpunk 2077 Is a Mess On Every Level

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December 17, 2020 at 08:13PM

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Cyberpunk 2077 and the constellation of controversy orbiting it—at nearly every level of its making—is almost laughable. The open-world shooter game, developed by Polish studio CD Projekt Red, was billed as the next big thing in video games, an experience that would impress both visually and narratively. From a huge city full of opportunities to an arsenal of upgradable elements for your customizable character, how could one not be enticed by the previews ahead of the Dec. 10 release? Hell, it’s even got Keanu Reeves in it, and a lot of him!

In hindsight, Cyberpunk 2077’s seven-year lead up didn’t do it any favors. After all, you can only rely on hype for so long.

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Since release, players have experienced a broken, incomplete title pockmarked with bugs and errors so extensive many found themselves unable to make much progress, myself included. In the aftermath of its controversial launch, CD Projekt Red admitted to relying on the harmful practice of crunch—demanding longer hours from employees for weeks or months at a time—in order to finish development. The game’s available on last-gen consoles, but looks like garbage on them. Accessibility issues led people with epilepsy to have seizures during gameplay, an issue that’s since been addressed, but should never have been a problem in the first place. Facing intense disappointment from fans who long awaited the game, the studio announced Tuesday that unhappy players can get a refund, though some are having trouble getting their money back from outlets like GameStop and Sony’s PlayStation Store.

In short, Cyberpunk has a tough 2021 ahead before it can think about 2077.

In Cyberpunk 2077’s gritty reimagining of America, you play as “V,” your custom-made ne’er-do-well thrown into mercenary life after a fall from grace. Following a botched heist that puts a time limit on your lifespan, you go on a journey through the seedy underbelly of Night City to make deals with crooks, gangs, cops, and corporations in search of a cure for your terminal illness that manifests as a virtual hologram of a certain Night City celebrity.

Night City itself, as with the rest of Cyberpunk, is only “edgy” as defined by a 14-year-old in 2004. It’s replete with Blade Runner-esque neon lights and holograms complete with more than suggestive advertisements. Everyone and their grandma has a cybernetic enhancement. Dildos litter the street, and you can use them as components in the game’s crafting system. Transphobic ads mar an already garish world that lacks any sort of subtext or nuance. The environmental “jokes” don’t land, and offensive jabs are present throughout, giving me pause as to the game’s target audience.

Look, I get it. It’s cyberpunk! The gritty future, baby! Everything is chromed out, gaudy advertisements run amok, corporations run everything, and the line between law enforcement and lawlessness is as thin as the card full of eddies you pay your private security team (oh, and money is called “eddies” now). But that’s not enough to hold the fantasy together. Once you look a little deeper, or stand in the same spot for longer than four minutes, you start to notice the cracks.

It would be easier to praise the immersive world of Night City if it decided to stick around during gameplay. Cyberpunk’s open world is largely farcical, mostly an illusion meant to convey breadth without actually delivering. Whether or not you’ll see crowds milling about (as seen in various preview videos) is a crapshoot depending on where you’re standing and what your computer’s processing power can handle. My own playthrough left me befuddled after sprinting for a car that rounded a street corner only to disappear. Other players have found the world basically devoid of any advanced activity—people mill about aimlessly, cars are usually still, and cops you decide to help may randomly decide you’re the enemy should a single bullet go astray.

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As you interact with Night City’s factions and gangs, you’ll quickly realize they’re disturbingly and stereotypically divided by race. As a Haitian-American, I took particular interest in the Haitian Voodoo Boys, one of the game’s many ethnically divided paint-by-numbers gangs. I can’t help but wonder what lack of imagination it took to put the primarily Haitian group—and the only black gang, full of the city’s most elite hackers—in the poorest part of town (V also makes a surprisingly racist comment in a Haitian doctor’s office, catching me off guard). It’s also confusing how much the gang relies on the exaggerated vodou aesthetic only to have the characters explicitly state they have abandoned the concept of god, “leaving them” on Haiti (despite the fact that Haiti is predominantly Roman Catholic). At least their Creole isn’t bad, I suppose.

This game is full of similar letdowns. It has intricate RPG elements, with a complex and tiered leveling system that gives you points for doing everything from helping the Night City Police Department (gross) to taking apart junk you find in the street. But there’s nothing new happening. If you’re familiar with open-world adventure games like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto, Cyberpunk 2077 will feel predictable—and all the bugs will make you realize how much fun those other games are by comparison.

On the right hardware, Cyberpunk 2077 is visually stunning—just be prepared to spend thousands of dollars for the best experience. Until then, your options are to play it on your PC and hope it runs properly, or stream it. There’s no “true” PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series S/X version of the game just yet, those are scheduled for release in 2021. You can still play it on the consoles, but they’ll be running the PS4 or Xbox One version of the title. Streaming options, like Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Google Stadia, can give you a pretty good approximation of playing on a high-end gaming PC, as long as your internet connection is quick and lag-free enough.

The game’s main storylines are pretty engaging, from the moment you meet Reeves’ character, Johnny Silverhand, to your last interaction with it. When the game’s set pieces work, they work quite well. Stealth elements are forgiving, letting you make risky and exciting dodges behind crates and cars. I felt a thrill concocting a plan using enemy-disabling “quickhacks” to take out four gangsters out without firing a single bullet, only to have it fall apart at the last second when a fifth suddenly appeared. Instead of blowing his head off, I opted to use more of V’s computer-based attacks, frying his brain before he could make a move.

But by the end of the game, I found myself relying on good old-fashioned bullets rather than those special abilities, akin to a wizard’s spells. Ironically, the unreliable hacking system sometimes worked only after repeated attempts. It makes you wonder if all the bugs in Cyberpunk add up to some sort of experiential art piece, where the glitches are a metaphor for the errors prevalent throughout Night City’s society.

Then there are the implications of the world Cyberpunk 2077 paints—a world where most people are cybernetically enhanced, be it with robotic limbs or synthetic organs. You must have a pretty good reason for removing your perfectly good legs or arms or face and replacing them with robotic prosthesis, right? Yet the game never really explains why everyone looks like they just crawled out of a Best Buy dumpster. The game opens with a very cool scene that puts you in the chair at your local “ripperdoc” office, where an automated tool tattoos a cybernetic attachment to your palm. Yet as you get even more invasive items installed, none of that attention to detail is present. There’s no mention of your natural limbs’ fate as they are removed without fanfare, and only sometimes reattached.

Cyberpunk 2077 left me both disappointed and frustrated. When it actually works, it’s somehow both enjoyable to play but incredibly difficult to stomach. But between the largely unplayable overall experience to its use of tried stereotypes of people of color and transphobic imagery in a misguided pursuit of “cool,” Cyberpunk is an undeniable mess. It’s a broken promise made to consumers who assumed it would look as advertised on their last-gen game consoles, complete with unforced errors and disingenuous apologies to both the studio’s own staff and to players who pre-ordered it sight unseen (The studio says Cyberpunk has already recouped its nearly decade-long marketing and developer costs from presales alone; it would likely have been a commercial flop in a world where people wait to read reviews before committing their money to new game.)

So let me be clear. If you still want to play Cyberbunk 2077 and own a next-gen console or a PC that exceeds the system requirements, you should avoid it for a few months while the issues are worked out and a dedicated version for those consoles is available. If you’ve got an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, you probably shouldn’t buy this game at all. If you’re mad about one of the most anticipated games of the decade turning out to be a hot mess, don’t worry. Everyone is.


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